“Showbag Bill” Risks Being Too Clever By Half

WITH THE CARBON TAX finally set to be repealed today — probably — the sidelined (and largely silenced) opposition “leader” will soon find public attention again focused in his direction. Like conservative renegade Clive Palmer, Bill Shorten is running a strategy aimed at making it impossible for Tony Abbott to effectively govern; unlike Palmer, Labor may come to rue the cost of a destructive strategy whose ultimate victim could be itself.

In the midst of all the jocularity and japes that Clive Palmer and his acolytes have been indulging themselves with in the Senate over the past week, it’s been surprisingly easy to forget all about Bill Shorten; so irrelevant is the ALP and its contorted position on the carbon tax (Kevin Rudd “terminated” it, Labor would repeal it, Bill Shorten would stop it being repealed and re-legislate it if it was) that some voters and most outsiders could be forgiven for believing that Clive Palmer was actually the leader of the opposition.

Indeed, it’s been a fortnight since we last discussed Shorten here — and that was when Treasury chief Martin Parkinson basically ripped into him over the amateurish and pointless approach taken by the latter to the Abbott government’s first budget.

I’m not going to say too much this morning: the point of my article is just to signal that we’re still thinking of Bill Shorten; Labor’s “man with a plan” (and a showbag of dirty tricks) may have been pushed out of the limelight by Palmer, but another opportunity to show his mettle — or lack of it — is fast approaching, given it seems obvious he’s squibbed the question of the carbon tax.

In the wake of the merriment and bonhomie excited by the antics of Clive Palmer — and with an ear firmly cocked to the now-typical Shorten blather about lies and broken promises — I happened across yesterday’s Editorial from the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, which underlines many of the themes and arguments I have been hammering in this column where Shorten’s tactics are concerned.

The next order of business to be tackled by the new Senate is likely to be those elements of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget that remain outstanding.

Should this be the case, Shorten will have a clear choice: to behave like an opportunistic hypocrite, blocking spending cuts and voting for spending increases, even where his (and Labor’s) actions work to prevent the government fulfilling pledges on which it was elected; or to behave like a real leader rather than a caricature of one, and to start acting in the national interest.

In an exquisite irony, to do the latter will be to the betterment of his own party and its eventual fortunes; to do as he has to date and to continue with the former approach, he could be the architect of the destruction of the next Labor government, and even of the Labor Party itself.

Over the four years since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, Australian politics has become brutal; reduced on all sides to idiot-simple slogans and conducted on the animal law of “do unto others before they do unto you,” what is always a rough-and-tumble sport has become nasty, vicious, counter-intuitive and personal.

Labor spotted the existential danger posed to it the moment it sprang to life in the form of Tony Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party; its treatment of Abbott is in essence a harsher dose of the same treatment it meted out to former Prime Minister John Howard, and for the same reason: Abbott has it in his being — as Howard did — not simply to be able to relegate Labor to opposition, but to inflict unmitigated political suffering on the Left if given the right political environment in which to work. Howard got the better of the ALP for 12 years. Labor is determined to avoid a repeat.

This is why the ALP narrative on Abbott is ceaseless, personal, and suffocating; the objective is to destroy Abbott before he can return the favour. Labor hardheads, it must be acknowledged, can probably scarcely believe their luck insofar as the shocking botch the government has made of selling its budget to date. Yet a cleanout of the government’s advisory ranks is all it will take to nudge Abbott and his team back onto a formidably competitive footing, and if and when that happens, Shorten — whose utterances suggest he stands for nothing except the carbon tax — will be in trouble.

A lot of trouble.

It is in this context I direct my readers to the Tele‘s Editorial, for it raises the issues and questions Shorten will soon again be asked, and revisits the issues raised by Parkinson two weeks ago.

And at some point, Shorten is going to have to provide clarity around the Labor position on a range of these issues, where contradiction and deception exist at present.

Refreshingly, the Tele sounds a timely reminder that the way government was managed under Rudd and Gillard left everything to be desired; its warning that the country is more or less mortgaged to the eyeballs is founded in a sea of debt and uncontrolled expenditure growth initiated on Labor’s watch, and to date the ALP — “led” by Shorten — is insistent that not only is there no problem to speak of, but that far from “fixing” anything, Abbott and his Liberal colleagues are simply being the nasty bastards Labor has such a penchant for characterising them as.

Perhaps Shorten could invest the time — as opposed to dishonest slogans — into comprehensively presenting the electorate with evidence to disprove the Commission of Audit projections that unresolved, residual spending commitments legislated by Labor will bring total debt to $700 billion within ten years.

Perhaps he can explain why, at roughly 15% of this amount for one single program, Labor saw fit to con the electorate that Gillard’s National Disability Insurance Scheme was affordable and fully costed when it was neither.

Perhaps he can outline how government debt of $700 billion (or a bit over 50% of GDP in today’s money) is consistent with Labor’s position that it could never and would never mismanage Australia into the kind of basket case status bedevilling a slew of Eurotrash economies that could collapse under the weight of debt and unsustainable obligations.

And perhaps he can explain why, as the Tele so eloquently and graphically reminds us, Australia’s welfare outgoings are set to increase by almost 700% in real terms, over the 35 years to 2020 and of which Labor governed for a majority of the time, and why it is so important that this kind of entitlement culture is allowed to continue to be entrenched and perpetuated despite the mortgage it is putting on future generations to repay.

Questions, questions, questions; these and so many more like them abound. Alas, Shorten will have little to say other than Tony Abbott is a liar who breaks promises.

More’s the pity.

If the Liberals are ejected from office at the next election, the mess Labor left behind will need to be dealt with by a Labor government, and based on Shorten’s “leadership” the portents for that are not good: determined to be irresponsible now to avoid alienating a single voter, there is nothing to suggest Labor would clean its act up if restored to office. In fact — based on past performance — it would be more likely to worsen the problem.

For all of Shorten’s high-minded and sanctimonious cant about broken promises, the fear he has tried to instil within an unknowing electorate — that Australia’s AAA credit ratings might disappear tomorrow because of Abbott — will almost certainly materialise if the budget isn’t put onto a more sustainable footing. If this occurs with Labor back in control of the purse, it will have nobody to blame but itself.

The argument that it’s Abbott’s fault will ring hollow: after all, according to Shorten, Abbott was responsible for every adverse development that occurred from the day after last year’s election onwards. The same will be said of him if (God forbid) he becomes Prime Minister, and Shorten will have nowhere to run — and no smart answers with which to deflect responsibility.

If we get to that point, the damage won’t just be to the country, and the mess of money that will still need to be cleaned up; it will tear Labor’s credibility to shreds, and damage its reputation for economic “management” to the point Labor will return to opposition for a very long time — perhaps decades.

In this sense, Shorten should be careful what he wishes for; squibbing it might seem like a good idea now over the carbon tax, and it might play well to fellow travellers over at the Communist Party Greens.

But Shorten will be dealt back into the debate once the carbon tax is gone, and one thought above all others should prove sobering for him, if for no better reason than jaundiced considerations of self-interest.

Shorten and his Labor mates might be trying to tear Abbott down with negativity and obstruction, but they aren’t the only ones attempting to achieve this outcome; Clive Palmer — driven by the fury of a perceived personal injury suffered at the hands of the Queensland LNP — wants to destroy the government too, but from the basest of motives: revenge.

It might be fun or amusing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Palmer; Shorten might even make noises about “working constructively” with the disgruntled Queenslander.

But if the Abbott government is torn apart, it will be Labor who must fill the void; and as much as Palmer, in those circumstances, would feel sated, the responsibility for picking up the pieces would be something he could walk away from with nary a care.

Shorten’s next opportunity to act like a leader is about to present itself. It remains to be seen what he does with it. But if he squibs the question this time, he’ll need more than a bag of cheap tricks to dig himself — and his party — out of the hole his actions will land them in.

At the end of the day, Shorten risks being just a bit too clever by half.